Claire G. Coleman, Night bird (#Review)

Wirlomin-Noongar woman Claire G. Coleman’s short story “Night bird” is the second First Nations Australia story in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s anthology Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction, the book I chose for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week. The week finished officially a week ago, but I’m hoping Bill won’t mind my still referencing it. Coleman is not new to my blog. I reviewed her debut novel, Terra nullius, the year after it came out. She has written more fiction and some non-fiction since then, with a clear focus on the devastating impact of colonisation on First Nations culture and people.

“Night bird” continues this focus. It follows Ambelin Kwaymullina’s story in the anthology, “Fifteen days on Mars” (my review), which works well, because both draw on the importance and role of Ancestors in First Nations culture. Coleman’s story is told first person by an artist who is “too afraid to sleep, too tired to be awake”, who drinks to drown her sorrows, who fears she may be “going mad again [my emph]”. She tells us

I am haunted by the ghost of my Ancestors’ Country like a phantom limb …

[…]

I have been cut off from my Country, my ancestors cut up, the land drilled and dug and eaten by machines … my wounded homeland won’t let me rest.

This is not a subtle story. The narrator (whom I think is female, so I’ll go with that) grieves for a life she “could never have” because Country has been “severed”. She has “returned to Country” but, finding it “dead”, “could feel nothing and none” of her Ancestors. She feels haunted, but by what or whom?

I can hear a voice but I can’t make it out. I can hear a song but I can’t catch the words. I can hear the wind and it’s stealing my breath. I can hear nothing and it is screaming.

Country is part of her, but she wants to be free of the haunting, the “wordless voice”, the “phantom presence” that won’t go away. There is a wind, but it is “coming from the wrong direction – away from Country”. Then,

The wind changes, it caresses my back, and suddenly it’s coming from Country.

However, at the same time, a man appears and threatens her. There are now two voices – his and the Ancestors. This is a story about a battle between disempowerment (represented by the man) and empowerment (represented by the Ancestors). Is she, and are they, strong enough to prevail?

I suspect this story was inspired by an experience Coleman describes in her article in Writing the Country (The Griffith Review 63). She describes the life-changing experience of going to Country in 2015, her family’s Country that had been taboo due to a massacre that had occurred there in the nineteenth century. She writes:

I didn’t go there until 2015, that place changed my life forever, my world, my life, even the way I breathed. I took the taboo air into my lungs and I did not die or maybe I did. The bones of my feet landed on the sand and returned to life, I was born again on Country. The story of that place made me a storyteller; story is in my veins.

She says an old man told her that “no matter where we go Country calls out to us” and she writes of the bird, the Wirlo (or curlew), that “to me and mine are family”. Its cry, its scream, “calls me home” – as does the night bird in this story. She describes how Country cares for people as they care for Country. She writes:

I wept when I realised Country had not forgotten me even when I did not know Country. My old-people, my ancestors, would care for me.

All of this is seems embedded in “Night bird”, so now, back to it. It is another example of “Indigenous futurism”. It is ground very much in the real world. The voices that our narrator hears are mysterious, sometimes coming from her phone, sometimes from the air around her, but they are not magical, not fantastical, they are the Ancestors – and the story envisions a healthy relationship with them and thus Country.

On her website, Coleman includes a link to an interview she did with VerityLa after Terra Nullius came out. Among the questions was that one we readers love, which is whether any authors or novels influenced her. The first one she named was HG Wells’ War of the worlds, because it “is great in giving an understanding of how to show an overwhelming powerful enemy destroying a less well-armed defender”.  “In fact,” she says, “War of the Worlds is a powerful text for the examination of invasion and colonisation”. You can certainly see its influence in Terra Nullius, and it is evident here too.

Claire G. Coleman
“Night bird”
in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail (ed.), Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction
North Fremantle: Fremantle Press in association with Djed Press, 2022
pp. 66-73
ISBN: 9781760991463 (eBook)

Ambelin Kwaymullina, Fifteen days on Mars (#Review)

In 2014, Ambelin Kwaymullina, whose people are the Palyku of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, described herself in a Kill Your Darlings essay as writing “speculative fiction for young adults”. Three years later, in the 2017 Twelfth Planet Press anthology, Mother of invention, she said that she was “a Palyku author of Indigenous Futurisms”, citing Grace Dillon (as did I in this week’s Monday Musings) as the term’s originator. I share this progression in her thinking because it’s indicative of the energy and intellectual engagement among First Nations people with literature and the politics of what they are doing. Kwaymullina is an example of a First Nations Australian writer who is actively engaged in First Nations culture and thinking, as well as in the craft of writing.

I first came across Kwaymullina early in my volunteer work for the original Australian Women Writers Challenge, because many reviews for her young adult novels were posted to our database. But, I had not read her because YA literature is not my thing. However, I decided to read Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s anthology Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week 15-22 January, and the first work in the anthology by an Australian woman was “Fifteen days on Mars” by Kwaymullina. Woo hoo… here was my chance to finally read her. I will post on more in this fascinating book, which I’ve not yet finished, later.

“Fifteen days on Mars” is an accessible short story, told chronologically from Day One to Day Fifteen. The politics is made clear in the opening paragraph, by beautifully skewering colonial settler behaviour concerning the naming of places:

It had been almost a year since we came to Mars. That was what I called this place although it had another name. It was Kensington Park or Windsor Estate or something like that but I couldn’t have said what because I could never remember it.

Our first person narrator Billie and her mum have come to Settler suburbia, where they are “the only Aboriginal people”, for some reason that is not immediately clear though we sense there’s a specific purpose. Billie hadn’t wanted to come but, as her mother’s only offspring without children, she’d drawn the short straw. The story starts with her pulling weeds from their garden, the very plants that the rest of the neighbourhood love, plants (I mean “weeds”) like roses. In this metaphorical way the colonial setting is established. This is a world we know. Very soon a new couple moves in across the road. Billie, at her Mum’s insistence, does the neighbourly thing, and makes contact. She quickly realises that their new neighbour, Sarah, is being abused by her husband, whom Billie calls The Suit. What to do?

To this point, notwithstanding the hint at the start that there’s something unusual about the situation, the story reads like a typical piece of contemporary fiction – that is, set in the known present world. But slowly, we become aware that something else is going on. Billie refers to “the rules”. Does she just mean the normal “rules” of social behaviour? Nope, our suspicion is right, there is something else. There’s reference to Sarah needing to “ask”, and to whether what or how she asks is “good enough for them upstairs”, aka “the Blue”, as Billie’s mum calls them. Billie says:

the truth was we knew very little about them, except they were some kind of intergalactic healers. But we knew why they’d come. It was because of the Fracture.

So now it’s clear we are in speculative fiction/Indigenous Futurism/Visionary Fiction/SFF territory. This is the sort of speculative fiction I can enjoy, something that doesn’t require me to learn a whole new world but that injects something new into the world I know, something that upends it a little.

The Fracture is not fully explained, but “something had smashed into the relationships that were space-time and cracks had spread out from the point of impact” resulting in, says Billie, “bubbles of the past floating across my reality”. The Blue, we are told, are trying to repair this Fracture, leaving humans “to do something about the bubbles” – but to the Blue’s rules. Billie’s mum had signed up “for the job of changing the bubble-world, or at least, of changing some of the people enough so they could exist in our reality”. Hmm, this makes them sound a bit like missionaries. An ironic twist?

Anyhow, the story continues, with a strong reference to the Stolen Generations, as Billie and her Mum, recognising these are “strange times”, try a different tack to save Sarah, and call on the ancestors. They hope the Blue won’t mind.

I will leave it there. I enjoyed the story – because it tells a First Nations story truthfully but generously; because the characters of Mum and Billie, while being somewhat stereotypical (the wise Mum and the reluctant Billie), are warm and engaging; and because the ideas and the story itself are intriguing to watch being played out.

In her 2017 piece cited above, Kwaymullina describes Indigenous Futurisms as “a form of storytelling whereby Indigenous peoples use the speculative fiction genre to challenge colonialism and imagine Indigenous futures”. This is exactly what she does in “Fifteen days on Mars”. The colonial legacy is unmistakeable, with most inhabitants of Settler suburbia remaining “unbelievably ignorant”, but she also offers glimmers of hope. I don’t eschew bleakness, but as an optimist I also appreciate it when writers can see paths to a better future. It’s energising.

Ambelin Kwaymullina
“Fifteen days on Mars”
in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail (ed.), Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction
North Fremantle: Fremantle Press in association with Djed Press, 2022
pp. 42-64
ISBN: 9781760991463 (eBook)

Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Australia speculative fiction

This post is my first contribution to Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week 15-22 January. Gen 5 encompasses women who have been writing from the 1990s to now. Bill argues that two major trends characterise this era: “the rise and rise of Indigenous Lit” and “writing which in earlier days would have clearly been SF – but which now is generally characterised as Climate Fic., Dystopian, or less frequently, Fantasy/Surreal/Postmodern.” With this in mind, Bill decided that AWW Gen 5’s focus would SFF – Science Fiction/Fantasy.

Given Bill observed that First Nations Women are writing in this genre, I have decided, for this post, to combine the two trends. It won’t be comprehensive, but more in the spirit of providing an introduction or overview. Here goes …

I have seen various terms applied to SF, or what I prefer, though Bill doesn’t, to call Speculative Fiction. Introducing their anthology, Unlimited futures, Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail speak of Visionary Fiction, which Wikipedia explains is not “science fiction” because it is driven by “new and uncanny experiences (mystical, spiritual and paranormal) in the neural web”. Wikipedia quotes Michael Gurian, who was one of the first to promote the genre on the web. He defines visionary fiction as “fiction in which the expansion of the human mind drives the plot. Where science fiction is characterized by storytelling based in expanded use of science to drive narrative, visionary fiction is characterized by storytelling based in expanded use of mental ability to drive narrative.” So, it may not be traditional SF, but I believe it can be encompassed under the speculative fiction umbrella, particularly as First Nations people see it.

Claire G Coleman, Terra nullius

The other main term I want to share, I found in BookRiot, in their 2020 article, “Explore Indigenous Futurisms with these SFF books by Indigenous authors”, by Danika Ellis. Ellis, who also uses the umbrella term, Speculative Fiction, writes that “Indigenous Futurisms” was coined by Dr. Grace Dillon, professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies Program at Portland State University. It was inspired by Afrofuturisms, which explores speculative fiction through an African diaspora lens. Ellis explains that “depictions of Indigenous people in mainstream media has often placed them in a historical context, not recognizing the Indigenous cultures and individuals of today, never mind the future. Indigenous Futurisms imagine Indigenous people into every context: space travel, fantasy worlds, alien invasions, and more.” BookRiot’s list includes Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius (my review) and Ambelin Kwaymullina’s young adult novel The interrogation of Ashala Wolf. Ellis makes the point that:

Indigenous Futurisms brings a much-needed perspective to a genre that is often uncritically colonial, whether it’s fantasy rooted in Medieval England, or space travel that celebrates conquering new worlds.

Good one. Not being a reader in this genre, I hadn’t clocked this.

Meanwhile, closer to home, last June The Conversation ran a review by Yasmine Musharbash of This all come back now: An anthology of First Nations speculative fiction, which was edited by Mykaela Saunders. This anthology, you will have noticed, uses the term Speculative Fiction, and Musharbash accepts this, offering her understanding of the genre:

In my view, speculative fiction – the narrative exploration of “what-ifs”, the creative probing into latent possibilities, the imaginary voyaging into potential futures – is the genre of our times. We are on the brink of … something. Environmentally, for sure. But also socially, politically, economically. 

What this something is, when it will happen, how it will shape the future: these are the questions at stake. 

This all come back now, she says, is the “first Australian anthology of First Nations speculative fiction”. This might be so, but of course First Nations Australians have been writing speculative fiction for some time. Musharbash discusses what characterises this anthology as “First Nations”, and says the first thing is “Country with a capital C, in that very First Nations sense of something utterly fundamental and intimately related to the self, is centrally present across these pages. Many of these stories are fully immersed in Country.” This is not surprising, nor, really is the other recurring element she identifies, humour. I have mentioned before First Nations humour and its particular flavour. Musharbash describes the humour as being cheeky, and often “bitter-funny”.

First Nations Australia SFF

I wrote above that First Nations Australians have been writing speculative fiction (SFF) for some time, and I’ve reviewed a little here on my blog, including Coleman’s Terra nullius, and Ellen van Neerven’s “Water” (my post), which is included in This all come back now. Coleman, in fact, is making this space a bit of her own, with two more novels, The old lie (Bill’s review) and Enclave (Bill’s review), published

Book cover

Before them was Alexis Wright with Carpentaria (my review) and, more obviously, The Swan book (Lisa and Bill). Bill describes this latter as being set “some time in the future after the countries of Europe have been lost in the Climate Wars”. It is still on my TBR.

However, there are several other writers whom I’ve not read or reviewed (yet) on my blog, like Karen Wyld and Alison Whittaker. Another is Ambelin Kwaymullina, who is best known for her YA speculative fiction series, The Tribe. Six years ago, she wrote a post, titled “Reflecting on Indigenous superheroes, Indigenous Futurisms and the future of diversity in literature on the loveozya blog. She starts with a strong argument about how Indigenous writing has been measured, against Western concepts, and addresses that colonisation aspect I mentioned above. She also addresses the point I have heard Alexis Wright make about “magic”, and takes it further:

In Australia and elsewhere, Indigenous peoples have also long been able to interact with the world in ways that the West might label as ‘magic’, but this is because the West often defines the real (and hence the possible) differently to the Indigenous cultures of the earth. There are many aspects of Indigenous realities that might be called ‘speculative’ by the West (such as communicating with animals and time travel). There is also much in Western literature that Indigenous peoples regard as fantasy even though it is labeled as fact, including the numerous negative stereotypes and denigrations of Indigenous peoples and culture contained within settler literature. 

Another good challenge to our worldview. She too references Dillon’s “Indigenous futurisms”, explaining that it describes “a form of storytelling whereby Indigenous peoples use the speculative fiction genre to challenge colonialism and envision Indigenous futures”.

Kwaymullina argues that there’s a growing Indigenous presence in speculative fiction, including in YA and Children’s fiction, and names some writers – Teagan Chilcott, Tristan Michael Savage, graphic novelist Brenton McKenna, and the young Aboriginal people responsible for NEOMAD (my post).

So, an exciting time for the genre and for literature in general, but I’ll close here …

Have you have read any First Nations (anywhere) speculative fiction? If so, care to share?

Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Classics

Over the years I have written several posts on publishers who have made a commitment to publishing Australian classics, such as Text, Allen and Unwin and the Sydney University Press, to name a few. I was thrilled last week to come across another one, this time from UQP, the University of Queensland Press, which has announced a First Nations Classics series.

UQP is well-known for its longstanding support of First Nations writing – both through publishing and through its sponsoring the annual David Unaipon unpublished manuscript award for First Nations writers. Indeed it describes itself as the first mainstream publisher “to set up a list specifically for Indigenous authors, the Black Australian Writers series”. Now, with this Classics initiative, it is going the next step.

The first set in the series comprises EIGHT titles which will be published in 2023. They are award-winning or shortlisted titles, dating back to 1988, and are well-priced at $19.99 each. Here’s the list (from UQP’s own blog):

(Links on the introduction writers are to my posts on those writers.)

As you can see, like the Text Classics series, for example, this comes with new introductions from contemporary authors – a true value-add. UQP says on its blog that this first set of books includes memoir, novels, short stories and poetry. Some are Unaipon Award winners, including the inaugural 1988 winner, Graeme Dixon’s poetry collection Holocaust Island, which is currently out of print.

You will also notice that among the bloggers I know, we have reviewed five of the eight titles. The three we haven’t, Graham Dixon’s Holocaust Island, Archive Weller’s The window seat and Herb Wharton’s Unbranded aren’t known to me, though I have heard of Archie Weller. So, given you have no reviews for them to click on, here is a little more on them:

  • Dixon’s Holocaust Island (1990): “a dynamic collection of poetry” that speaks out “on contemporary and controversial issues, from Black deaths in custody to the struggles of single mothers. Contrasted with these are poems of spirited humour and sharp satire”. (from GoodReads)
  • Weller’s The window seat, and other stories (2009): “a collection of Weller’s best short fiction and a tribute to his contribution to Australian literature. The stories are honest, brutal and moving” (from UQP website).
  • Wharton’s Unbranded (2000): a novel which offers “an Aboriginal viewpoint on the pastoral industry and race relations … by a masterly yarn teller” (from the book cover on the UQP website)

Now, back to the series – UQP’s publisher Aviva Tuffield articulates, on the above-linked blog, their ambition for this project:

This series will generate renewed interest for these books and their authors – both individually and collectively – and ensure them the contemporary audience they deserve.

She also explains that they’ve been assisted with funding from the Australia Council and the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. I love the work that the latter does, in particular. Over the years of this blog I have referred to many varied programs and projects supported by the Copyright Agency.

The editor of the series is First Nations writer and editor Yasmin Smith who reiterates Tuffield’s ambition:

I hope this series will provide readers a renewed appetite, a greater awareness and a new thoughtfulness towards Indigenous stories and culture. The First Nations Classics are essential reading for all generations.

The blog implies UQP’s selection criteria for the books when it describes them as “some brilliant, timeless books – across all genres – that are as important, engaging and relevant today as they ever were on first publication”.

The blog also shares a little about the cover design for the series, by Jenna Lee, “a Larrakia, Wardaman and Karajarri woman with mixed Asian (Chinese, Japanese and Filipino) and Anglo-Australian ancestry”. The aim of the design is “to highlight and showcase the vibrancy, diversity and nuance of First Nations authors, their voices, and the important stories they share”. The covers are intended “to make sure they are recognisable as a collective set but still allow for individuality to feature, with unique colour combinations and illustrative patterns giving the reader a window into the story within”. I’ve had a look at them, and think they are gorgeous and accessible. Click on the pic and see what you think.

Now, over to you. What – looking at UQP’s inventory – do you think should be in the 2024 set?

(If you are not Aussie, you are welcome to select a First Nations work from your own country if relevant. Of course, you can also name a non-UQP book, as an intellectual exercise, but I’d love to see how close we get to what is selected.)

Anita Heiss, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (#BookReview)

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray/River of dreams is Anita Heiss’ second work of historical fiction, her first being Barbed wire and cherry blossoms about the 1944 Cowra breakout in which she imagines a relationship between a Japanese escapee and a young First Nations Australian woman. I have not read that novel, but I have read, over the last year or so, other First Nations Australia historical novels, including Julie Janson’s Benevolence (my review) and the collaborative novel by non-Indigenous Australian Craig Cormick and First Nations writer Harold Ludwick, On a barbarous coast (my review). Long before these, though, was Kim Scott’s unforgettable The deadman dance (my review).

The value of these, and like books, to offering a First Nations perspective on the one-sided history that most of us grew up with can not be under-estimated. Heiss, in fact, wrote in her Author’s Note and Acknowledgements, that through re-engaging with her Wiradyuri homelands in her early 50s,

I realised very quickly I had to honour those Ancestors who for millennia have lived, loved, and nurtured the land and each other. And I wanted to pay tribute to those who carry on culture, knowledge and language still today. I felt I had a responsibility as an author to write our Wiradyuri heroes – our men and women – into the Australian narrative where they had been ignored or forgotten too long.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is her response to that realisation. It is of particular interest to me because it is set around Gundagai and Wagga Wagga, which are within three hours’ drive from where I live. Although I have been visiting the Gundagai region since the mid-1970s, it was only in recent years that I became aware of the story which is central to Heiss’ novel. This story concerns Gundagai‘s flood of 1852. As Wikipedia describes, the Murrumbidya flooded, killing at least 78 of the town’s population of 250 people. Using bark canoes, four local Aboriginal men, including Yarri, Jacky Jacky, and Long Jimmy, saved somewhere between 40 and 68 people. They were minimally recognised at the time, but, finally, in 2017 (2017!), a bronze sculpture of Yarri and Jacky Jacky, with canoe, was unveiled in Gundagai. Heiss’ novel concerns the life of a young Wiradjuri woman, Wagadhaany, the imagined daughter of Yarri.

The novel is told, like many historical novels, chronologically, but it starts with a Prologue set in 1838, some 14 years before the main narrative starts. This prologue is important. It introduces Wagadhaany who, as a 4-year-old, is with her babiin, Yarri, as he tells a “White man” that the place they are standing on is “not a good place to live, Boss, too flat”, that it’s a “flood area”. Of course, the White man ignores this local knowledge and so the stage is set for 1852 when the devastating flood comes. By this time, Wagadhaany, now 18, is working as a servant for that very White man, Henry Bradley.

The flood and its immediate aftermath occupy the first five chapters of this 29-chapter novel. Only two sons of the Bradley family of six survive, along with Wagadhaany. The rest of the novel follows their lives over the next couple of decades, showing how little the White settlers learnt from the experience – practically, in terms of how to live on the land, and morally, in terms of their behaviour to the true owners of the country. Wagadhaany, who is bound, she is told, by the Master and Servants Act of 1840, has no agency in such a world.

“a witness without a voice”

Into this situation comes the young Quaker widow, Louisa, who, like the Bradley men, lost her family in the floods. I was surprised by the appearance of a Quaker, but Heiss also explains in her Note that there were Quakers in early colonial Australia, and they were interested in “the treatment of the convicts and the Aborigines”.

Louisa is an interesting character because she tries to treat Wagadhaany well. She calls her by her actual name, rather than Wilma, as James Bradley does; she works alongside her in the kitchen and garden; she gives her a bedroom in the house; and she converses with Wagadhaany as a friend. But, she has her blind-spots. She is oblivious to Wagadhaany’s lack of agency over her life, to the fact that, when the Bradleys (now including Louisa), move to Wagga Wagga, she thoughtlessly over-rides Wagadhaany’s wish to stay in the Gundagai area where her family is.

As the novel progresses, Wagadhaany’s homesickness for her family, and her country, increases. We are privy to Wagadhanny’s thoughts, to her awareness that there are limits – albeit unconscious ones – to Louisa’s concept of equality. Louisa is, after all, a product of her time and her culture – and Wagadhaany notices that, for all their “equality”, it is Wagadhaany who does the hardest, dirtiest, heaviest jobs, and that she is not paid a wage.

What the presence of Louisa does, though, is to add richness and nuance to the depiction of colonial society. She is a foil to the brutal, racist attitudes of James Bradley. She does not mitigate them but shows that his were not the only views around. Wagadhaany, on the other hand, tells it as it is from the First Nations’ perspective. In the early days after the flood, Heiss writes that Wagadhaany

feels like a witness without a voice. She was there, she lived through the horror of the flood, the fear, the physical exhaustion, the loss of those she knew. But no-one asks how she is, what she thinks or knows, or how she feels.

For all Louisa’s kindness, there is much Wagadhaany feels she can’t say, and so throughout the story she continues as a silent witness. Here she is reflecting on Louisa and work:

She wondered why Louisa had to be protected from hard work but the Wiradyuri women didn’t. And she wondered if that thought ever crossed Louisa’s mind, because that made them different, unequal …

Gradually, though, she starts to stand up for herself:

“I know I will have to work for you, I know about the masters and servants law, but you cannot keep me living here in the homestead against my will if you honestly believe I am your equal and that I should be as free as you”.

And Louisa, to her credit, “lets” her live with the river family.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray has strong characters, but it is also a genre novel with a strong plot, including of course, romance. I don’t want to spoil what is a good page-turning story, so I will leave the story here.

Heiss has several novels under her belt now. She knows how to tell a good story, and she is also very clear about her message. She uses her fiction to show what she wants the rest of us to know. In this novel, it’s the way First Nations people lived, the way they tried to work with the settlers, and the way they were gradually pushed off their land. She also, through Louisa, forces us to confront what really is being “a good White person”. So, not only does the novel tell some truths about Australia’s settler history but it is also immediately relevant to today.

In this novel, Heiss also, as First Nations writers are increasingly doing, incorporates language into the writing. There is a glossary at the back, but you rarely need it because most words are self-explanatory in context. Seeing “our” nation’s words in Australian literature is a truly exciting development.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray isn’t a perfect novel – and I struggled particularly with Louisa’s falling in love with the man she does. But this is a genre novel, and a bit of belief-stretching is allowed. The end result is a book that engages the reader with its strong protagonist in Wagadhaany, that wraps its vital messages in a compelling story, and, significantly, that ends authentically.

Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) has also recommends this book.

Anita Heiss is a Wiradyuri woman from NSW.

Anita Heiss
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray
London: Simon & Schuster, 2021
393pp.
ISBN: 9781760850449

Larissa Behrendt, After story (#BookReview)

Larissa Behrendt’s latest novel After story has been on my wishlist since it came out last year, so I was thrilled when my reading group chose it as our 2022 NAIDOC-Week read. What self-respecting reader, after all, doesn’t like a literary tour?

After story, for those who haven’t caught up with it yet, is framed around a ten-day literary tour of England that is undertaken by a First Nations Australian mother and daughter, Della and Jasmine, whose relationship is fraught. Through this plot device, Behrendt marries her two storytelling loves – English literature and Indigenous Australian storytelling. In doing so, she draws comparisons between them, and explores ways in which both can reflect on and enhance our lives. She also shows how travel can be an engine of change for people.

Although it contains some very dark matter concerning grief and abuse, After story is a gentle and generous read – for two reasons. First, there’s the characters. Della and Jasmine, are strong, thoughtful and, importantly, real. Both have made mistakes in managing the challenges in their lives, but both genuinely want to have better relationships with those they love. Della, the less educated and more naive of the two, is particularly engaging for her honesty and lack of pretension, for her open-mindedness, and for the rawness of her pain. The other reason is the novel’s tone. It is clear and passionate about the wrongs done to Australia’s First Nations peoples but it is not angry. This is not to say that anger doesn’t have its place – it certainly does – but it’s not the only approach to telling the story of dispossession and dislocation.

What is particularly striking about this book is its structure and voice. After a prologue in Della’s voice telling of the disappearance twenty-five years ago of her 7-year-old daughter Brittany, the novel is structured by the tour, with each day being told, in first person, by Della and then Jasmine, until Day 8, when Della’s built-up grief overcomes her. After that, the order changes and Jasmine goes first. This change marks a turning point in their relationship – albeit not an immediate, epiphanic one. It also jolts the narrative out of a pattern that had risked becoming a little too rigorous. Like a coda, it makes the reader sit up and wonder what will happen next?

What does happen, however, as I’ve already implied, is not particularly dramatic. Rather, this book emulates something Virginia Woolf said, as Jasmine shares:

The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

Like life.

But, back to the structure. After story is one of those books in which the structure mirrors or supports its intention – and Jasmine, again, explains it well. Talking about Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ response to it in Wide Sargasso Sea, she says, “it’s compelling, the uncovering of the other side of the story”. “Uncovering the other side of the story” is the nub of this novel – personally, in terms of Della, Jasmine, and their relationship with each other and the rest of their family, and politically, in terms of the conflicting views and experiences of the colonisers and colonised. What Behrendt aims for in this novel, I believe, is to bring people together through improved mutual understanding.

Lest this sound too earnest, though, let me reiterate my earlier comment that this novel has a light touch. To balance the heavy material, which includes a number of losses including those related to abandoned and lost children, Behrendt creates a cast of typical tour participants. There’s the white male know-it-all professor and his seemingly mouse-like wife; the feminist young lesbian couple willing to take him on at every turn; the recently retired, educated middle-class couple; the bossy woman and her down-trodden sister; Della and Jasmine; and of course Lionel, the long-suffering tour guide, and bus-driver Brett. Behrendt handles these almost-stereotypical characters well, so that, by the end, even the arrogant Professor Finn is softened for us.

There is much humour in the telling, such as this, for example, from Della as she enters the British Museum, which, she has just discovered, still holds Aboriginal remains:

As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
“We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

Comments and asides like this are used throughout the novel to draw our attention to the truths we may not otherwise see. Truth, in fact, is a recurring idea in the novel – the withholding and the sharing. Della, reflecting on Thomas Hardy’s first wife being written out of history, remembers stories of erasure told by her community’s elder Aunty Elaine, and thinks “Sometimes the truth matters and you shouldn’t try to hide the facts”. A little later, Jasmine is also reminded of Aunty Elaine’s wisdom:

Aunty Elaine would remind me that there is more than one way to tell a story; there can sometimes be more than one truth. ‘The silences are as important as the words,’ she’d often say. There is what’s not in the archive, not in the history books – those things that have been excluded hidden overlooked.

Throughout the novel, Aunty Elaine’s stories and wisdom, shared through the memories of Della and Jasmine, provide the First Nations’ foil to the literary tour, sometimes enhancing, sometimes counteracting the messages and lessons of English literature.

I did, however, have one issue with the novel, one shared by a few in my reading group. This concerned its occasional didactic tone. Frequently, for example, the characters tell us what they’d learnt at various sites, such as about Jane Austen’s life or Virginia Woolf’s death. While we could see the point, the way the information was imparted did feel teachy at times. Fortunately, this tone did not extend to the novel’s underpinning ideas which are conveyed through the narrative rather than “told”.

In a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel, Behrendt said something that appeals to me, which is that the goal of being a great writer is to say something important. In After story, she has written an engaging, accessible novel, that also says important things – some subtle, some more overt, but all stemming, ultimately, from the traumas First Nations people have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of the settlers.

Jasmine comes to a significant realisation near the end:

Suddenly I found the museum stuffy. When Aunty Elaine would talk about it, our culture felt alive – the sewing of possum cloaks … the gift of telling stories. They were living and breathing, not relics of the past, frozen in time. Looking at the artefacts surrounding me, I couldn’t help but feel I missed an opportunity with Aunty Elaine to capture her knowledge.

She had, she continues, “rightly valued education” but she had also “taken Aunty Elaine and her knowledge for granted”.

This is the call Behrendt makes in her novel. She wants both cultures given equal respect for what they can offer us. She knows the value of stories in bringing people together. Wouldn’t it be great if her story here achieved just that?

Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman

This book has been reviewed by several bloggers including Lisa, Brona and Kimbofo.

Larissa Behrendt
After story
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
307pp.
ISBN: 9780702263316

Monday musings on Australian literature: Magabala Books

2022 National NAIDOC logo

Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2022 First Nations Reading Week and this year’s NAIDOC Week officially ended yesterday. However, as I’ve done before, I’m bookending those events with Monday Musings posts – with this week’s topic being the pioneering publisher, Magabala Books.

Magabala Books have been operating for over 40 years – as they share on their website. (I do love it when organisations make space for telling their history on their websites, and am really frustrated when they don’t. Do you feel the same?)

Origins

I’ve linked to their About us page above, but in a nutshell, their origin can be found in 1984 when “more than 500 Aboriginal Elders and leaders met at a cultural festival in Ngumpan” in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, to discuss how they could keep culture strong and protect cultural and intellectual property”. The result was the establishment of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC), which laid the ground for Magabala Books. 

“Magabala’s beginnings”, they say, “were part of the wider movement of Aboriginal self-determination occurring in the 80s”, a time when Australia was “just beginning to reveal its interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture”.

Magabala’s first book, Mayi: Some Bush Fruits of the West Kimberley by Merrilee Lands, was published in 1987, and this was soon followed by Glenyse Ward’s highly-acclaimed autobiography, Wandering girl. In March 1990, Magabala Books became an independent registered Indigenous Corporation. It is governed by a Board comprising Kimberley Aboriginal educators, business professionals and creative practitioners.

Their Vision and Purpose is:

To inspire and empower Indigenous people to share their stories. To celebrate the talent and diversity of Australian Indigenous voices through the publication of quality literature. (website)

They achieve this not only by publishing books on and by First Nations Australians, but they also create and deliver a wide range of cultural projects geared at ensuring stories of value continue to be available into the future, and they offer a number of awards and scholarships which support their commitment to nurturing and celebrating First Nations talent.

Recognition

On their website, they describe themselves as “Australia’s leading Indigenous publisher”, and they list some of their achievements. Here’s a selection, from that and my own search of Trove and the web:

  • 1993: Magabala Books publication Tjarany Roughtail won the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s inaugural Eve Pownall Award for Information Books (and other awards including the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year) 
  • 2017 and 2019: shortlisted for Small Publisher of the Year (Australian Book Industry Awards)
  • 2019: the fastest growing independent small publisher in Australia
  • 2020: awarded the Small Publisher of the Year (Australian Book Industry Awards)
  • 2020 and 2021: listed as a candidate for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, a prestigious international children’s literary award

I’m not sure whether Tjarany Roughtail, by Gracie Greene, Joe Tramacchi and Lucille Gill, is their first award-winner, but it will have been one of the first. Since then many of their books have been shortlisted for or won significant Australian literary awards, proving that Magabala truly is a force in Australian publishing. If you’d like to check out some of the books that have been recognised by the literary awards circuit, click on their Award Winning and Notable page.

Their books

On their About Us page, they say that since beginning they have published “more than 250 titles by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, artists and illustrators from across Australia”, of which I’ve read several. Their authors include Bruce Pascoe, Alexis Wright, Ali Cobby-Eckermann and Alison Whittaker. Currently, they publish around “15 new titles annually across a range of genres: children’s picture books, memoir, fiction (junior, YA and adult), non-fiction, graphic novels, social history and poetry” and I’ve read several over the years. They are also committed to maintaining “a substantial backlist in print” which is great to see. (And, it’s clearly true because that 1993 award-winning book, Tjarany Roughtail is still listed on their inventory).

Anyhow, I thought I’d delve a little into Trove to see what I could find about early responses to them and their work – recognising of course that the post-1987 period is still in copyright so most newspapers have not yet been digitised.

I was interested to find their existence was noted early on. Moya Costello started her review in Sydney’s Tribune wrote in 1988 with:

Some books turn your head around. For me, two such books have been by Aborigines. Only two because I am just beginning to read Aboriginal writing, and because we’re just at the beginning of a great swell of Aboriginal writing being published in Australia.

And then, she writes, comes a third book, Glenyse Ward’s Wandering girl. She wishes “books like this had been around when I was at school. I have missed this history of my own country. (My own country?)” She is not the only reviewer to recognise the history we have missed. Anyhow, she then identifies the publisher:

You haven’t heard of Magabala Books? Let me introduce you. Based in Broome, WA, Magabala books publishes writings by Aboriginal people. It’s been funded by Bicentennial money — but if you’ve heard the publishers speak, and if you’ve read Magabala publications, would you quibble?

In 1989, Canberra-based author Marian Eldridge reviewed in The Canberra Times two First Nations books, one being Magabala’s Raparapa: Stories from the Fitzroy River drovers by Eric Lawford, Jock Shandley, Jimmy Bird, Ivan Watson, Peter Clancy, John Watson, Lochy Green, Harry Watson and Barney Barnes. They are important, she writes, because both are “told by Aborigines from an Aboriginal point of view” and “what they have to say is part of Australia’s history that has been far too long neglected”. Again, we we see in a mainstream newspaper, recognition of history we’ve missed. Interestingly, a new edition of Raparapa was published by Magabala in 2011.

Eldridge goes on to say about Raparapa that:

Until now, books about the cattle industry in northern Australia have been written by white people. Raparapa, instigated by John Watson, formerly Fitzroy River stockman and later chairman of the Kimberley Land Council, helps to right the balance.

Jess Walker also reviewed this book in 1989 in Tribune, and concurs, saying the book

is much more than just a collection of interesting anecdotes. It’s a very rich and stimulating book which fulfills the objectives John Watson set for it – to communicate to other Australians the full extent of Aboriginal involvement in one of Australia’s most important primary industries, and to help explain Aborigines’ relationship to land. Raparapa also preserves the stories of an older generation of men for the benefit of the younger Aboriginal people. 

I found quite a bit more, but I will close with a report by Robert Hefner in The Canberra Times in 1990. He quotes Pat Torres, a First Nations writer and artist (among other things), who was on Magabala’s management committee. She described their basic aim as being

to foster the oral history and stories of the Kimberley and put it into a form which is accessible to a lot of people. We encourage the training of Aboriginal people in the area of publishing, and we encourage local artists to contribute their drawings to illustrate the stories. But basically our aim is to foster and maintain Aboriginal culture and history . 

As Magabala Books say on their current website, they want “to ensure Indigenous people control their own stories [my emph], and that the benefits flow back to the right people”. It seems that they are not only achieving that, but are also getting those stories out to the wider Australian public. Finally, we are learning the history so many of us missed.

For Lisa’s 2022 First Nations Reading Week

Click here here for previous ILW/FNRW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings.

Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (#BookReview)

The final line of “Gather”, the opening poem in Evelyn Araluen’s collection Dropbear, announces her intention – “got something for you to swallow”. Well, I can tell you now, if you haven’t already read the book, she sure has.

Dropbear, self-described by Araluen as a “strange little book”, won this year’s Stella Prize, the first year, in fact, that poetry was included as an eligible form for the prize. It has also been highly commended or shortlisted for several other significant Australian literary awards. I can see why. It is a fiercely intelligent, confronting and discomforting read that tells truths we all need to hear – and feel. It is also, however, a literary feast, replete with allusions to Australian literature from May Gibbs to Kate Grenville, from Banjo Paterson to Peter Carey, and more. There is a reason for this as Araluen explains in her Notes at the end. Dropbear should, she writes,

be read with the understanding that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.

In other words, you fight fire with fire! What this means is that in this collection, Araluen, from her Notes again, “riff[s] off and respond[s] to popular tropes, icons and texts of Australian national culture”. In doing so, she upends prevailing attitudes, challenging the colonial project and making it very clear that it’s still in play. This all starts with the title which comprehends the myths and dishonesties at the core of Australia’s settler culture.

In the collection’s second piece, “The ghost gum sequence”, she revisits Australia’s early colonial history, concluding with

Tench’s gaze is still there – but so is ours staring back.

Simply said, powerful in impact. Araluen, and her peers, are no shrinking violets.

However, she also recognises (as does Larissa Behrendt in After story), that she too was brought up on these same texts she uses in her resistance. Hence

the entanglement: none of this is innocent and while I seek to rupture I usually just rearrange. I arrange the colonial complexes and impulses which structure these texts but it doesn’t change the fact that I was raised on these books too. (“To the parents”)

“To the parents” is one of the more autobiographical pieces in the collection. In it she reconciles her younger self’s frustration. She had seen her “parents as easy victims of the colonial condition, and not agential selves who had sacrificed everything” for their children, whereas in fact:

While my siblings and I consumed those stories, we were never taught to settle for them. My parents never pretended these books could truly know country or culture or me – but they had both come from circumstances in which literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just wanted me to be able to read.

The resourcefulness of First Nations people is palpable in experiences like this. For Araluen, there is challenge in teasing out the “entanglement” of her own “black and convict ancestors” (“The Ghost Gum Sequence”). This includes that hard “yakker” of connecting with black heritage lost through generations of dispossession: “It is hard to unlearn a language / to unspeak the empire” (“Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal”).

Another autobiographical piece is “Breath” in which she writes of being overseas with J when the 2019-2020 bushfires hit and the pandemic starts. She is confronted by her personal dreams in dystopian times:

We came to talk about temporality, about literature, about the necessity of art in the time of crisis … We spent our youths imagining this kind of life, dreaming of ourselves as writers and thinkers who travel the world to tell stories. Being here tastes sour and hollow – it feels like relic-making. What use is a poem in a museum of extinct things, where the Anthopocene display is half-finished? … What use is witness at the end of worlds.

And yet, she doesn’t give up. In poem after poem she witnesses and shares what she sees. It’s exhilarating to read, if that’s not too positive a spin on tough content. “The trope speaks” addresses the many ways in which settler literature has usurped place, ignorantly and arrogantly:

The trope feels a ghostly spectre haunting the land, but smothers it with fence and field and church

The trope thinks every tree is a ghost gum

Later, in “Appendix Australia”, which comprises bitingly funny footnotes, this latter point is referenced again in “37. sic: not a fucking ghost gum, ibid”, reminding us yet again how little we settlers really do know country, as we muddle, if not stomp, our way around it.

The collection is divided into three parts – Gather, Spectre and Debris – which reflect a thematic and narrative trajectory that takes us from historical imperatives in Gather, through more personal reflections in Spectre, to marrying present and past in Debris, though I am making this sound more clear-cut than it really is, because the connections are more organic than formal.

The pieces vary significantly in form and style, and include prose poems, upper-case poems, a redacted poem, and memoir, but there is a coherence that transcends this difference. This coherence lies in the book’s overall unrelenting exposé of the workings of a colonial-settler society that still avoids the truth, and it is supported by recurring ideas and multilayered images, like banksia men and gumnut babies, ghosts/spectres, smoke/ash, and haunting/hunting. Each of these contain opposing ideas that jolt the reader into stopping to consider the meaning and argument being presented. It’s not easy reading, but it is worth persevering.

The final piece in Gather is “The Last Endeavour”, which tells the Cook story. It’s a prose poem that makes no bones about what these “ghosts” were doing: “we have the promise of history, the order to bring light to the dark”. It’s dramatic, ironic and, like most of the collection, satiric.

Immediately preceding this is the telling “Dropbear Poetics” which concludes with:

you do wrong        you get wrong
you get
gobbled up

Can’t say plainer than that.

The book, then, conveys ongoing loss, and critiques how deeply settler-driven history and literature is implicated in that, but it is also a hymn to country. Araluen is Bundjalung-born and raised in Dharug country, and her descriptions of the birds, trees and rivers of these coastal-riverine places are paradoxically beautiful when set against the overall narrative.

Dropbear is an impossible book to review, because every time I pick it up to consider how to end this post, I see something else I want to share. I must finish it, but I must also mention the irony and wit to be found in the collection. Poems like “Acknowledgement of cuntery” and “Appendix Australis”, for example, are breathtaking in their use of humour to skewer settler hypocrisy and obliviousness.

In a final act of deconstruction and, perhaps, reconstruction, Araluen ends her book with the defiant poem, “THE LAST BUSH BALLAD”, that sees the Banksia Men, the Bunyip, and the Dropbear defeated. It concludes on a reminder of the opening poem:

I told you I was prepared to swallow.

Araluen’s Dropbear might be a “strange” book, but it is certainly not little. It’s audacious, erudite and unsettling (pun intended), and warrants every bit of the time and attention I gave it – and more. Recommended.

Brona (Brona’s Books) has also posted on this book. However, I don’t think she will be offended if I say that Jeanine Leane’s First Nations analysis in the Sydney Review of Books comprehends and explains this work far better than we ever could.

Evelyn Araluen
Dropbear
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2021
104pp.
ISBN: 9780702263187

Written for Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week

Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Australian poets

2022 National NAIDOC logo

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2022 First Nations Reading Week which coincides of course with NAIDOC Week. As has become my practice, I’m devoting this week’s Monday Musings to the cause.

NAIDOC Week’s theme this year is Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! Its focus is encouraging First Nations people to continue “getting up, standing up, and showing up” to achieve “systemic change” and to “narrow the gap between aspiration and reality, good intent and outcome”. They also say,

The relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non‑Indigenous Australians needs to be based on justice, equity, and the proper recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights.

I would like to think that our blogs help in some way by sharing our engagement with First Nations Australian writing, and hopefully inspiring others to engage too. There is a lot of truth-telling in First Nations writing and I greatly appreciate what I am learning. Although it can be confronting at times, it is exciting to feel my understanding expanding and deepening.

Book cover

And this brings me to this post, because my introduction to First Nations Australians’ experience and thinking came through poetry. It was in my teens in the late 1960s. I had become interested in racial inequality, and discovered the work of Kath Walker, as she was known then.

Kath Walker was, of course, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993). According to the Macquarie Pen anthology of Aboriginal literature, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, Walker “readopted her tribal name” in 1988 “as a protest against Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations and a symbol of her Aboriginal pride”. Heiss and Minter say that her 1964-published collection, We are going, “was the first book of poetry by an Aboriginal writer and the first book by an Aboriginal woman”.

Book cover

For Poetry Month last year, you may remember that I asked people to share their favourite poem (or poems). One of mine was Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s “We are going”, and I see that it is one of the eight that Heiss and Minter selected for their anthology. As they say in their introduction to her, “Oodgeroo was politically active from the late 1940s and became one of the most prominent Aboriginal voices”. Her poetry reflected her politics, as is common among poets from marginalised, disempowered people. Poetry, after all, is a powerful tool. It can make points succinctly, and do so in ways that you want to repeat. Listen to the end of “We are going” – the repetition, the rhythm and tone it creates, and the final line. Wham!

We are nature and the past, all the old ways 
Gone now and scattered. 
The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter. 
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place. 
The bora ring is gone. 
The corroboree is gone. 
And we are going.

Oodgeroo varied her style, and often used rhyme, but here she uses free verse to such rhetorical effect.

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t read much First Nations poetry again for a few decades, until I read contemporary poets like Ellen Van Neerven, Ali Cobby Eckermann and, right now, Evelyn Araluen. However, First Nations people were writing poetry right through, and Heiss and Minter include many in their anthology. These writers include Jack Davis (1917-2000), who wrote a poem titled “Walker (For Kath)”. It starts, “Fight on, Sister, fight on/Stir them with your ice”.

Then, there’s Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) and his daughter Kerry Reed-Gilbert (1956-2019), and Lionel Fogarty (b. 1958), who also wrote a poem for Oodgeroo titled “Kath Walker”. It starts, allusively, with “We are coming, even going”. There’s Tony Birch (b. 1957), some of whose prose I’ve reviewed, and Sam Wagan Watson (b. 1972), son of novelist Sam Watson (1952-2019).

There are writers I don’t know so well, like Lisa Bellear (1961-2006), who, say Heiss and Minter, was a “notably political poet”. (But, then, how many weren’t and aren’t.) Her poem, “Women’s liberation”, speaks to that issue of the movement being largely for and by white middle-class women. It’s witty and pointed. You can read it at Poetry International.

“got something for you to swallow”

(from “Gather”, by Evelyn Araluen)

I have, though, written on First Nations poetry in this blog. My post on the digital publication, Writing black, that was edited by Ellen Van Neerven, includes references to several of the poets I’ve named above, including Kerry Reed-Gilbert and Lionel Fogarty. I enjoyed Writing black especially because it introduced me to some of these voices I’d heard of but had not yet read.

Book cover

Ellen van Neerven is a well-recognised First Nations poet. Indeed, she was caught up in a controversy when her poem, “Mango”, unbeknownst to her I believe, was included in an HSC exam a few years ago. You know you have arrived on the Australian literary scene when you’ve been embroiled in a controversy. Anyhow, her second poetry collection, Throat, was shortlisted for several literary awards. Jonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly) has reviewed it, describing it as “a rich, accessible, many-faceted collection from a strong, challenging and self-questioning voice”.

Another collection I haven’t read is Alison Whittaker’s BlakWork, which won the 2019 Judith Wright Calanthe Award. Bill (The Australian Legend) and Brona (Brona’s Books) have both reviewed it. Brona, in particular, connected with it.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my mother

However, I have read some contemporary First Nations poetry, including Ali Cobby Eckermann’s historical fiction verse novel Ruby Moonlight (my review) and her collection Inside my mother (my review). I’m currently reading Evelyn Araluen’s 2022 Stella Prize winning Drop Bear, which Brona has reviewed. Like much First Nations poetry it’s political and powerful, but is also witty.

This has been a brief and selective survey. There are many First Nations poets I haven’t mentioned, but if you are interested to hear what First Nations people are thinking, you won’t go wrong if you check out some of their poetry. I hope this post offers those interested some ways in.

Do you have any favourite First Nations poets – or, even, poems?

Written for Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week

Click here here for my previous ILW/FNRW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings.

Cindy Solonec, Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez (#BookReview)

Cindy Solonec’s Debesa is one of those curious hybrid biography-memoirs that are appearing on the scene. Its subtitle describes it as The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez, implying biography, but in fact, Frank and Katie are Solonec’s parents and so the book also incorporates some of her own story as part of the family. I’ll return to this later, but will start with the main content, the biography.

Debesa spans four generations of the family, starting in the 1880s with Solonec’s maternal great-grandparents, but it centres, as the Media Release says, “on the unlikely partnership of Cindy’s parents: Frank Rodriguez, once a Benedictine novice monk from Spain, and Katie Fraser, who had been a novitiate in a very different sort of abbey – a convent for ‘black’ women at Beagle Bay Mission” north of Broome. The Release also explains that Debesa is a rewriting of Solonec’s 2016 PhD thesis which “explored a social history in the West Kimberley based on the way her parents and extended family lived during the mid-1900s”. What Solonec does in the book, then, is to turn her thesis into a readable history and a family memoir, a combination that is becoming an increasingly acceptable approach to historical writing.

There is some contention about this tree’s prison use, but not about its cultural significance.

I was keen to read Debesa for a few reasons, not least being that I’ve been to the Kimberleys (east and west) and am intrigued by this beautiful region and its complicated history. I grew up being aware of its pastoral history, particularly regarding the Durack family and the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and I came to understand some of its colonial past when I saw such “sights” as the Boab Prison tree in Derby during my visits there. As Solonec’s family story is contemporaneous with the mid-twentieth century Duracks and the Ord River scheme, it was enlightening to see this world from a smaller and more marginalised perspective. I say “smaller” because Frank and Katie’s property, the titular Debesa, was a small pastoral holding, and “marginalised” because Katie’s “mixed descent” Indigenous (Nigena) background meant the family was always on the outer.

Solonec sets the scene in her Introduction by providing a brief history of the Kimberley’s colonial history, one founded on “the ideology that everyone must live like white people. Speak their language. Adapt to the ways. And marry lighter skinned people …”. It’s the same story that we’ve read before – people dispossessed, country spoiled, and children stolen. In her early chapters, Solonec documents the family’s story from the time of her maternal great-grandparents, Indian immigrant Jimmy Casim/Nygumi and his Nigena wife, Muninga. Their daughter, Solonec’s grandmother Jira, was born in 1900 and stolen with her cousin in 1909. Designated as orphans and renamed Phillipena and Francesca, they were taken to Beagle Bay Mission, leaving their mothers distraught.

Alongside the stealing of children was the stealing of the land:

On stations along Mardoowarra [lower Fitzroy River], land was fundamental to Nigena existence. They knew every part of that country intimately. Their neighbours and the broader Australian post people’s concept of ‘country’, their religious attachment, their awareness of food sources, was inherent to their way of life. They knew the call, cry, track of every living creature. Everything that breathed, every hill, every creek, crevice and outcrop and night sky with its myriad of galaxies, they knew by name. The seasons dictated their movements and their care for country within pliable boundaries. No-one ever got lost.

But, the Nigena had to watch, Solonec writes, as their land was taken for pastoralism and their sacred sites destroyed and/or renamed. Her extended family, “like refugees in their own country, lived in bush camps near the homesteads” and the women were preyed upon by “lecherous, irresponsible guide menfolk”. There is nothing new here, but Solonec puts flesh on the bone by telling it through the prism of her own family.

In chapter 3, we meet Solonec’s parents, Frank, who migrated from Galicia, Spain, in 1937, and Katie, whose parents were the stolen Phillipena and Fulgentious, a Nigena man with a white stockman father. Together they forge a life, drawing on their deep and shared commitment to Catholicism. They take work where and when they can, Frank as a trusted builder and Katie a respected cook and station-worker. They raise and educate their four children, acquire their own land, and slowly build a home and establish a small pastoral business, Debesa. Theirs was a partnership in every sense of the word. Solonec makes the interesting observation that Aboriginal cultures and European peasant cultures, from which Frank had come, have much in common, including a “strong sense of kin”. And, of course, Frank as a non-English migrant, had his own experience of bigotry and prejudice.

Biography? Memoir?

There’s excellent historical research here about life in the Kimberley, with illuminating “short histories” of subjects like mustering and wage disparity, and discussion of issues like the divisive and destructive “exemptions” from the Native Administration Act. (Tony Birch addresses similar exemptions in his novel, The white girl.)

To write this book, academic Solonec drew, rightly, on a large body of secondary sources and other life-writing about the region – all of which is documented in the thorough bibliography at the end – but she also had her father’s diaries, which provided the book’s “chronological framework”, and the stories of her mother and extended family passed on through oral tradition. She writes that, fortunately:

Aboriginal peoples still uphold past events through oral histories … I was excited to find that their stories were not that hard to cross reference with the literature. Their memory vaults with stories that have been handed down served them well, confirming the reliability of Indigenous intelligence.

(I suspect she means “intelligence” in both meanings here.)

As I opened this post, though, the book is a curious mix. The first half reads like a traditional biography while the second half slips more into memoir. This is heralded in the Introduction where Solonec describes her aim as

wanting to leave a documented account for posterity about the way marginalised peoples lived in the Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River) region during the middle of the twentieth century. A social history as experienced by my families. I wanted to leave an account of ordinary people’s everyday lives that would not otherwise be recorded. An account based on my parents’ joint biography.

This is perfectly valid, and she achieves what she set out to do. Her approach does, however, raise some questions, particularly towards the end, where there’s a risk of the subjective blurring the objective, making the truth potentially hard to discern. Solonec is justly proud of her parents’ achievements, and certainly they had much to contend with, but there’s a sense that all the problems they had were external, which seems unrealistic. I don’t believe, however, that this invalidates the critical historical truths contained here. In fact, the warmth of the story makes Debesa an approachable history which, given the significance of its subject, is a good thing.

Lisa also reviewed this book, engendering some good discussion.

Cindy Solonec
Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez
Broome: Magabala Books, 2021
264pp.
ISBN: 9781925936001

(Review copy courtesy Magabala Books)